Monday, July 6, 2009

Human Sexuality: A Gift of God

(Christian Reflections on Different Sexual Orientations)

On the 2nd July 2009, the Delhi High Court pronounced a historic judgement to amend the nearly 150 year-old colonial times law of section 377 in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and decriminalise private consensual sex between people of the same sex. On hearing the judgement, there has been a mixed reaction from diverse segments of society. Gay rights activists were overjoyed by the judgement and said it is a way forward in their struggle for equality; most religious leaders opposed the move, calling homosexuality “unnatural” and a “mental sickness”; while political parties sang their tunes of expediency by either being neutral or outright opposed to the judgement. The media has aired several discussions and debates on this issue affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, portraying a diversity of perspectives by celebrities in the film industry, social activists, religious representatives and politicians. Those in favour of the Delhi High Court judgement described the moment as a new beginning for an inclusive community, and those who were against it stuck to their guns using scriptures and notions of the will of God, tradition, culture, morality, religion, anti-creation, etc. In such a situation as this, when so much of the Christian Church has denied the existence of sexual minorities, I wonder: what would have Jesus done? This reflection is from the perspective of a young, pastoral & ecumenical learner. This is purely my own individual position and does not reflect stand or position of any Church in India, neither is reflected to contradict any people or institution’s ideas or ideologies.

Gay and lesbian issues are no longer behind closed doors in India, for these brothers and sisters have come out of culturally imposed closets to profess their sexual orientations and identities. Despite all the opposition, some of the younger generations in our society are slowly accepting the reality of these friends and are able to respect them for who they are. However, such acceptance has been minimal when compared to the resistance these our friends have faced from other quarters. The Indian Union Health Ministry last year even proposed “abolishing homosexuality,” for it claimed that HIV and AIDS was increasing due to homosexuality. The proposal was met with severe criticism from all quarters.

The Church teaches that we must love all human beings, for all are created in the image of God. Yet our same Church has largely been closed and resistant to gay lesbian realities, for it often teaches that homosexuality is unscriptural, unethical, unnatural and un-spiritual. Global Church councils and communions have been divided over the issues raised by the existence of varieties of sexualities, and many try to shy away from addressing them. I also heard someone say, “A homosexual Bishop is too much for a Church to think of.” Is such a statement consistent with God’s command to love and to acknowledge the image of God in all? As Christians are we able to respect our friends in Christ whose sexual orientation and identity may be different from our own? Are we willing to welcome them into our communities and accept their God-given gifts based on our common baptism and oneness in Christ? On the contrary, too often we contribute to discrimination against them, openly criticise their sexual orientations and identities, expose them to public condemnation, allow them to be branded as non-humans, and do not protest when vicious, derogatory remarks are made about them. Is there a way out of claiming a theology of inclusive love while living a theology of condemnation and exclusion? Is there a way forward?

Let us analyse a situation addressed by Jesus in his times, for such an analysis will provide clues for a way forward in the midst of today’s issues arising on different sexual orientations. In John 8:1-11, when a woman caught in adultery was brought to him for judgement, Jesus tells the religious leaders who brought the woman before him to be the first to throw a stone at her if they were without sin. On hearing this, everyone in the gathered crowd turned away, beginning with the elders, who were usually firmly committed to keep the status quo in place. Only Jesus alone stood in solidarity with that woman, for he neither condemned her nor sang the tune of the religious leaders in branding her a sinner. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. “Go, and do not sin again.”

1.Jesus does not condemn by virtue of one’s body. Jesus could have easily condemned the woman and joined a mob in stoning her to death, for she was caught in an act of adultery. But what if this woman was forced into the act? And why did the religious leaders not also bring before Jesus for judgement and potential stoning to death the man with whom the woman had allegedly had sexual relations? If Jesus had gone along with the testing and goading of the religious leaders, the forces of man’s aggression and patriarchy would have bruised the woman’s body to death. Imagine, this woman would have been battered and utterly traumatized by men and would have experienced unimaginable pain all over her body. Perhaps because Jesus perceived the truth and heart of the matters before him, he did not judge by virtue of the woman’s body, but by virtue of the spirit and context of the situation.

2.Jesus does not condemn by virtue of written letters. When the religious leaders brought the woman before Jesus, they accused her of the crime of adultery and quoted from their religious laws that the penalty for such a crime was to be stoned to death. Jesus could have endorsed the written law by advocating: “Let it be so as it is written in the law.” On the contrary, for Jesus, life and life-giving spirit superseded the written laws of scripture. Jesus, as the Word who became flesh, has come to fulfil the law, all the more for the sake of life and life-enriching experiences. Jesus addressed the situation of the woman cast before him by testy religious leaders ready to condemn her by contextually translating the will of God in a way that was relevant for his times; for he knew that the revelation of God is continuous and dynamic. Moreover, when the religious leaders quoted their ancient, provocative scriptures, Jesus responded by casually scribbling with his finger on the ground, for he knew that the spirit of life- giving is above the letter of the law that would discriminate against and destroy a person.

3.Jesus does not condemn by virtue of the majority views. Although the religious leaders cite Moses’ law – that anyone caught in adultery was to be stoned to death – there is no evidence that such stoning actually took place on a regular basis in Jesus’ day. Nevertheless, it was commonly understood that adultery was a sin. Blanket condemnation for such behaviour was the majority’s viewpoint in Jesus’ time. In addressing the situation of the woman cast before him, surrounded by a crowd in the temple, Jesus was not carried away by the cultural viewpoint of the majority, but was rather the only single man who opposed the majority’s preconceived notions that would have condemned her, though Jewish law also required an irreproachable trial before carrying out any punishment. Jesus was a revolutionary and always took risks to subvert the things that deter life. Perhaps, on that day in the temple, if Jesus would have joined the chorus of the religious leaders’ legalistic, scriptural and political arguments, he would have been a hero in their sight. But rather, he decided to be bold, to be singled out, and to take a stand on behalf of the one who otherwise would have been discriminated against and victimised.

4.Jesus does not condemn the victimised, the discriminated against, and the marginalized, but listens to the most vulnerable and stands in solidarity. When Jesus was left alone with the woman, by asking “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”, for the first time Jesus invited the bleeding woman to speak. There was no space provided to this woman by the religious leaders for her to express her feelings and pain. Seeing that all who would have condemned the woman - and even killed her – had left the scene, one after the other, Jesus gave the woman the opportunity to speak for herself, building within her a source of tranquillity and trust in relationship to him. When she answered “no one [is left to condemn] Lord”, Jesus assured her that neither did he condemn her. Jesus did not condemn the victimised, discriminated against, and marginalized woman, but invited her to give voice to her own experience and stood in solidarity with her. Listening to those who have been victimised and discriminated against is the strength of Jesus. Perhaps by listening we ourselves may come to know more about the issues of our day and what we learn may allow us to be more open to new light and truth. Jesus strengthened the woman by telling her to go her way and from then on not to sin any more. He wanted her to live a life of dignity in her locality. Jesus respected the image of God in her, equal to that in any other person, and boosted her depressing life by affirming her worth, dignity, self-respect and self-determination to live life in all its fullness.

After carefully analysing this case in point, we draw some implications regarding how Jesus might have dealt with sexually diverse people today. Let me be explicit that I do not want to draw parallels between people of different sexual orientations and identities and the woman caught in adultery in Jesus’ day. Sexual orientation and identity are inherent characteristics of humankind, separate from sexual behaviours. The rationale in choosing this passage from Bible, is the kind of a different situation Jesus addressed, where the religious heads sought a judgement, just like the people seeking judgement on section 377 of IPC.

1.Jesus would not condemn people of different sexual orientations by virtue of their bodies. Bodies are gifts of God to people, temples of the Spirit, and sexuality, including sexual orientation, is an aspect of our God-given embodiment. Heterosexuals and people of different sexual orientations are born with the same gifts from God, all part of the natural diversity of God’s creation that God called “very good.” Scientific studies demonstrate that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic. Persons who discover that they are “naturally” heterosexual are no different than persons who discover an inbuilt gay or lesbian sexual orientation. Just as heterosexual persons have the freedom to self-identify as such, so our LGBT friends know that they have been born the way they are. Surely Jesus would have respected these our friends as people made in the full image of God. Jesus would not condemn people by virtue of their bodies, whether they are born as male, female or otherwise. When 5-12% of people globally are born with sexual orientations other than heterosexual, let us respect them for who they are.

2.Jesus would not condemn people of different sexual orientations by virtue of written scriptures. Most but not all religious communities oppose and condemn people who are not heterosexual by appealing to their beliefs and traditions rooted in their own written scriptures. Yet, for Jesus, scriptures were the record of the experience of God’s activity by particular communities in particular contexts. The gospels are full of accounts of Jesus’ reinterpretations of Jewish scriptures applied to persons and situations he encountered. Therefore, when people of different sexual orientations today share the dire reality of their lives and their contextual struggle for equality, it is easy to imagine that Jesus would have allowed for the fresh revelation of God to illuminate his way in addressing this struggle. It is easy to picture that Jesus would have championed the cause of life and equality whatever personal risk might be required. I believe Jesus would have transcended tradition, culture, religion, etc. and would stand in solidarity with people of different orientations, for he condemns discrimination done to anyone on any account. For Jesus, scriptures are to promote life as he himself did in his preaching, teaching and healing ministries, and scriptures should not be used as a stumbling block to deter life in all its fullness.

3.Jesus would not condemn people of different sexual orientations by virtue of a majority view. Today many of those who oppose and condemn LGBT persons claim that these friends’ self-acknowledged identities are against nature and that the majority of people are opposed to them. It is hard to believe that Jesus would have been carried away by the winds of majority thinking or that he would have condemned sexual minorities on account of popular opinion. When many people argue that LGBT persons’ claims of authentic self-discovery and identity are “unnatural”, against procreation and the laws of life, I believe Jesus would differ from the majority view. For he carefully analyses every situation, deeply knows people and their contexts, and responds accordingly. Even though he may be the only one to do so, Jesus would stand for life and justice.

4.Jesus would not condemn people of different sexual orientations who are victimized, discriminated against, and marginalized, but would listen to them and stands in solidarity with them. Jesus’ primary mission to this world is to stand by the least, the last and the lost in society. He has come to release captives from the prisons of discrimination and oppression. Jesus would have allowed LGBT people to speak up for themselves, for he listens and cares for them. Listening certainly makes Jesus to stand by them. Jesus truly would have stood in solidarity with people of different sexual orientations and identities, even if the Church would not stand with them; even if cultures and traditions would not stand with them; even if politicians would not stand with them; and even if the religions of the world, including Christianity would not stand with them. Jesus would have stood solely and singly with these LGBT persons and would not condemn them on the basis of their sexual orientation or identity. Jesus would embrace them, for he would affirm that they are the ones equally created in the image of God, like him.

Theological Implications for Justice Action
At this point, before we conclude, I would like to explore how we might apply these theological reflections to further strengthen our commitment for the cause of equality among sexual minorities who are gifts to humankind. The whole discussion raises three prominent questions, each of which requires careful attention, for all of them are parts of the theological wrestling within me.

1.Are different sexual orientations a gift of God?
2.How do we understand body theologically?
3.What does it mean, “Do not sin again”?

Due to limitation of space and time, let me just reflect on the third question only.

Do not sin again
On Vidhana Soudha building in Bangalore, it is engraved on the main wall, as “Government’s work is God’s work”. This inscription caught my attention and I find myself reflecting on several implications drawn from it. One such implication is that anything against government is sin, for anything against God is sin. Therefore, any resistance against government’s orders is sin, and people’s movements against government policies are sins. Another implication is that the government’s word is the final verdict on any matter concerning sin. This latter implication in particular helped illuminate for me the scripture passage in John 8:1-11 and what Jesus might have meant when he told the woman to “sin no more.”

In Jesus’ time, the inscription written on Jewish religious people’s hearts was “Mosaic law is God’s law”; anything against it was sin and had to be condemned. When Jesus said to the woman who had been caught in adultery: “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again”, Jesus at the end pronounced a judgement. But it likely was not what religious people would have expected him to say. By not condemning the woman according to the Mosaic law, Jesus was, in a way, condemning the crowd of people surrounding him in the temple, including the religious leaders, who were sinning more and more at the expense of vulnerable sexual minorities. By announcing, “sin no more” to the woman, Jesus was confronting the act of adultery, where a powerless woman could easily be forced into it. Sin in Jesus’ times was understood as something against Mosaic law. Therefore, Jesus could have said to the woman: “Even though no one condemned you, according to the law you have sinned, and I shall forgive you.” But Jesus said to the woman “sin no more/ do not sin again.” Jesus gave that woman life which was far above the written laws and written sins.

In today’s context, what is the measure to be used to pronounce what is sin and what is against God? Some religious pundits say “Anything against nature is sin.” But who decides, and how is it determined, what is inherent to nature and what is “against” nature? The questions are ongoing. But Jesus’ words “do not sin again” offered the woman the opportunity to uphold her identity and dignity and opened up life where only the forces of oppression had once been. Jesus neither names the sin nor calls the woman a sinner. Therefore, let no one ever call any one, irrespective of their sexual orientation or identity, a sinner. Let God alone be the judge.

Like Jesus, let us work to be in solidarity with LGBT friends, respect their sexuality, accept them as human beings made in the image of God, and welcome them into our communities. Let us not diminish their self-respect, dignity and self-determination, of which they are in need like anyone else. Let us give up condemning them for, after all, they are our co-human beings created equally in the image of God. I pray that the Church, as the foretaste of God’s reign here on earth, would take the lead in standing for the rights of persons of different sexual orientations and identities, for since they have been excluded by every section of people in the society.

May God, who does not condemn human beings because of their sexuality but who is the giver of the gift, teach us to respect the dignity of our LGBT friends. And may God grant our churches the love and grace to accept them into our communities and to fight for their rights. Just and inclusive communities will still be only a dream if we do not accept people of different sexual orientations and identities into our churches’ fold. Truly, sexuality is a gift of God, distributed to humankind in splendid varieties.

07.07.09

6 comments:

India Peace Centre said...

Dear Rev. Bharat, I am happy to read your long theological argument to substantiate the Human Rights of LGBT, at the backdrop of the Delhi High Court verdict.

The main focus of the discussion ie., Rights of people of different sexual orientation, is well maintained.

I respect your conviction.

I like to make two observations:

1. Your diligent interpretation of Christ's 'Do not Sin again' appears to be influenced by your sympathy to the victim rather than the passion for the Truth. Do you mean to say Christ was dogmatic to say 'do not violate the established law'?; do you mean to say 'Christ would not have thought that 'adultery was a sin?''

In my honest reading I understand that Christ felt that adultery was a sin and the woman should not commit it lest she would lose the kingdom of heaven. In His compassion, He hastens to protect her from the stone throwers and then, moved by His love, cautions her not to indulge but seek righteous path.

PS: As for me, I am not here to judge 'CSWs' as sinners.

2. The problem spring from the Delhi Verdict is grossly misrepresented.

The issue is not the ‘right of Homosexuals’ but the likely impact of such a provision on the larger society. While the rights of those brethren who are physiologically caught between two gendgers need to be carefully ensured and a postitive outlook be cultivated towards them, total acceptance of homosexual relationship, I apprehend, would lead to adverse effect on the fundamental course of human species. The Intelligent human being has the ebility to choose what is easy and less burdonsome. Declaration of of Homo-sexual relationship as normal acceptable one, can lead to diminishing heterosexual relationship particularly - family formation. That is not in tune with purpose of human civilization - that emerged as a process of promoting the life of human species. For paucity of time I am not making it lengthy - Hetero sexual relationship today is an actuality but I doubt it is natural, as sexual instinct is primarily given to prod individuals get into the process of procreation (continuation of the species) and investing that energy in those relationship which can not support the fundamental purpose of that energy is to be deemed unnatural.

Hence the Rights of Gay need to be more prudently designed than emotionally supported
yours in peace
Dr D John
Director,
India Peace Centre,
Nagpur

chintu said...

Dear Bharat anna,

i was really looking and waiting for a reflection on this issue till from the point of time the Delhi High court verdict came.

I am really glad as have drawed our minds into a new insight and at a new angle.

For the interpretation in your arguement

Jesus might have stand with the victim. But he never endorsed the sin or such activity. Even today we have no right to judge any and we need to see all the humans are made in the image of God irrespective of their style of life.

there is a saying

Movements are emotional and
Law is logical and arguement based.

Emotions will draws us to uncertain grounds to take decisions. It is not posssible to accept different sexual orientations are from God to me. and we also need to understand the present crisis of family setup disturbing due to western influence.

I also agree to your point who decides wat is natural? But i also doubt other sexual orientations are still natural?

Anyway its high thing for me to respond

Regards

Prashanth

clara said...

Hey Barry, I was very curious to read when I saw the title 'Human Sexuality...'. I liked your sympathetic, all inclusive argument supporting the LGBT with the backdrop of Delhi High Court Verdict.
We are living in the times where there is no difference between right and wrong. People hate moral absolutism( 90% say there is no absolutism) but are so keen on relativism.
"Do not Sin" is interpreted in a very fascinating way by you. Jesus loved sinners no doubt about it but I dont think he encouraged the sin in the sinners. If that is so there is no point in the cross and His blood.
If the time immemorial institution of marriage can be anything today, tomorrow it can be something else, say we three adults are interested, we want to do something, who are you to indulge in our private matters, leave us alone, followed by give us rights, followed by make it law. The situations and scenarios change as time passes by, by the whims and fancies of people, if truth(eg: in jesus time it is sin, but not now) also changes, I pity, it is a sad state of affairs.
I totally agree of loving them and understnading them ( as followers of Christ we have an additional rresponsibility in doing that) but taking the scripture portions we like and interpreting that in an ecumenical sense to show your sympathies, I am sorry I have to disagree.
The sympathy for victims, love for the opressed should not change the truth but viceversa.( This is my take).
God Bless you. I love you.
Preethamakka.

Dinesh said...

Dear Bharat,
I am sorry for this delayed response on your excellent write up on the recent Delhi High Court verdict on Article 377 of the IPC, titled “Human Sexuality: A gift of God” . Human Sexuality and Christian faith is a very interesting subject for me, as I have been involved with some initiatives in the past during my tenure at the NCCI. As early as year 2001, we did organise a few Study Institute on Human Sexuality.
Almost all the religion, including Christianity say a big NO to homosexuality. There are clear cut instruction in the Bible (Old Testament) forbidding homosexuality as we can see in Lev 18:22 and 20:13. Therefore, if we try to seek the answers from the Bible as to Is homosexuality a Sin?? Then the answer will be resounding “YES”. But we have to take a compassionate and rights perspective of the scripture in this case.
When we talk about homosexuals, we are talking about a group of people who are born as “women trapped in men’s body and vice versa”. That is why precisely, they are attracted towards the people of same sex. I am sure we have come across men who behave, talk, walk in a very ‘feminine’ manner. And some women behave and talk/walk in a rather ‘masculine’ manner. These are clear deviation from the Gender norms set by the society. And when we see these deviations, we call them “abnormal”, or “unnatural”. The famous French feminist writer Simone De Beauvoir has said, “We are born male /female(or intersexed), but become a man/woman (or transgender)” .
If some one even if forces a heterosexual man with a gun at his temple and asks him to have sex with another man, I doubt he will . Because, he is born with a heterosexual orientation. But all of us including the law of the land, are forcing the homosexuals to love and have sex with the opposite sex.
Its scientifically proven that “Homosexual behaviour is largely shaped by genetics and random environmental factors” , according to findings from the world's largest study of twins – Science Daily (June 30, 2008 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080628205430.htm).To cut it short, anything natural is God’s gift! As bharat Says Human Sexuality is a Gift of God, we have NO right to say that “Homosexuality is NOT a gift of God” . If some one is genetically born with a particular sexual orientation, that is also a gift of God and we must not look at it as a “disease”. WHO (World Health Organisation) has already removed homosexuality from the list of diseases. All major mental health organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA), have stated that homosexuality is not a mental disorder or a disease. (http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/children/teens/sexuality/739.html) .Therefore we respect the homosexuals and give them the right to a dignified life of a human being, rather than being judgemental simply because we are heterosexual by our orientation.
Finally, the verdict is only to ‘decriminalise’ homosexuality. Not to “legalise” it. There is a big difference between the two. Meaning two mutually consented adults of same sex will not be put behind bars / fined for having a sexual relationship. And probably we fear that now after the verdict, the homosexuals will be literally “doing it” here and there, every where.... in the parks, shopping malls, metro train, etc...:) . As much as heterosexual partners maintain their private sphere for their sexual activities, so will the homosexuals. Otherwise you are booked irrespective of your sexual orientation for “committing an act of obscenity in public place” . And please for God sake, let us not have unfounded fear that this will affect our children/ brothers/ sisters. It is not a DISEASE nor it is an EPIDEMIC. So just chill.... live and let live.

Thanks Bharat again, for giving us a space to let our views shared with others. And I fully endorse your assumption and analysis.

Dinesh Suna
Policy Officer, CASA, New Delhi
Cell: 9891 558464
www.casa-india.org

shiju sam varughese said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shiju sam varughese said...

Thanks achen for your insightful essay. I have used your article in my post on the theme as well.